Strange mix of music and shadow puppetry in “Fjords” proves mesmerizing

Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 10:29 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Chicago Q Ensemble performed Thursday night in “Fjords” at the Poetry Foundation. Photo: Shawn Kelly

There’s a sense of natural fit between the sleekly modern Poetry Foundation building at 61 W. Superior and Fjords, “a contemporary shadow puppet show” that mixes old and new kinds of storytelling in performances running through Sunday at the new venue.

Based on poems by Zachary Schomburg, a writer based in Portland, Ore. whose work is aptly described as “quietly antic,” Fjords is the brainchild of artists associated with Manual Cinema, a Chicago company created in 2010, and the Chicago Q Ensemble, an equally young string quartet whose repertoire ranges from Baroque to collaborations with video DJs. Kyle Vegter, a composer, performer and producer who is administrative associate for the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, wrote the music for the production.

Some of the elements in Fjords are as old as poetry itself. The story line, which veers between funny and poignant, focuses on such eternal themes as the loss of childhood, on blossoming romance, on dreams that make no sense. It is told mainly through the ages-old tradition of shadow puppetry—sharp black cut-outs, silhouettes of birds, buildings, people and countless other objects that move jerkily across a lighted movie screen. Actors from Manual Cinema, led by the sweetly flummoxed Drew Dir wearing a goofy knit cap topped by a bushy tassel, move silently in and out of the light amid the cut-out figures. Printed titles with such thoughts as “My father and I are Lost in the Arctic Ocean” periodically pop up to guide the narrative.

The images are deliberately rough-hewn. We see the transparent strips holding the cut-outs. When the actors reach to grab a cut-out bird or handrail, the difference between the stiff shadow puppet and the flexible human hand is crystal clear.

Running slightly over an hour, Fjords had a few dull spots in its opening performance Thursday night. But aided by Vegter’s melodic, repetitive music, it was strangely mesmerizing and thoroughly modern. The women of Chicago Q Ensemble—violinists Ellen McSweeney and Kate Carter, violist Aimee Biasiello and cellist Sara Sitzer performing on amplified instruments along with percussionist Eric Streichert—found both raw energy and serene quiet in the score. Undulating and often restless, the music didn’t literally illustrate the on-screen action. Rather, enhanced with electronic effects in an audio mix directed by Kevin Plattner, it more subtly illustrated the story’s shifting moods.

The young artists behind Fjords have managed the very risky blend of an ancient art with modern technology. The result is a touching, unmistakably 21st century tale.

The four evening performances have sold out and two matinees have been added—at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The show opens with a reading of Schomburg’s poems. Fjords begins at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 at or at the door.

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